“Stoned at Shadow Lake”: The Journals of Heron Stone, 1977

Features / October 10, 2019
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MCKENNA: Shrunk now to an almost infinitesimally small dot in the rear-view mirror, 1977 continues to cast a strange shadow over our times. Perhaps one of what my colleague Mike has adroitly termed “hinge years”—those points when incipient forces in the psychosphere coalesce and react with one another, causing reality to shift direction (I’m probably explaining that wrong)—’77 was home to pop-cultural events that, aesthetically and psychologically, feel like they contributed a lot to creating our strange present day: the contradictions implicit in punk, the aesthetically intoxicating myths of Star Wars, the launch of the Apple II. Saturday Night Fever is released. Elvis dies. US public TV broadcasts directly from the right side of the brainThere are UFOs everywhere. ’77’s a big one.

What we’re going to be looking at today is another artifact from that year, then: apparently one of a couple of decade’s worth of journals that an individual with the evocative (and to any fellow Owl Service– or Stone Tape-traumatized Brit, vaguely troubling) name, or pseudonym, of Heron Stone has scanned and made available at the Internet Archive. If, like me, you’ve ever half-arsedly started writing a journal, you’ll be familiar with the sensation of leafing through it years later and trying to reconstruct the world you inhabited, what the fuck was going through your mind, and often what the fuck you were actually even talking about. Heron Stone’s journal gives us the opportunity to do this with the jottings of a complete stranger and for a historical moment that, even though it instinctively feels close in time, is about as distant from us now as the Napoleonic Wars or something.

I’m going to start un-chronologically, with October 1977. The cover logo on the notebook already elicits a strange tingle of atavistic discomfort, evoked by a time when the immense affluence of a part of the world and the weird psychopathologies that were instrumental in underwriting a lot of that affluence started to become increasingly difficult to hide. From a modern perspective, it’s hard not to see echoes of the Celtic cross, the Zodiac killer’s symbol, the crosshairs. But once the notebook is open, we’re straight into the other ’70s. Laid back, beige, comfortable. And could a 1977 journal begin any more auspiciously and more absolutely of its time than with the words “stoned before going to Tricia’s party with Giza and Cindy”?

What do you make of these journals, Mike? And do they bolster my bold assertion that 1977 was, in fact, a hinge year?

GRASSO: These journals have been one of the most delightfully cryptic trips I’ve experienced in three years writing for Mutants, Richard. When you first sent Kelly and me the link, I spent a long time virtually “holding” the notebooks in my hand, thinking about what weird series of circumstances led to these objects being scanned, archived, and seen by me. Because before we all carried around powerful computers in our pockets, if you wanted to be able to take down a phone number or a passing thought, they went somewhere like here! Extracting meaning from these notebooks is as difficult as trying to decipher the Voynich Manuscript or the UMMO Letters; there’s a definite sense here of our author out there in the world hearing turns of phrase or random pieces of information and jotting them down alongside quotidian concerns such as shopping lists.

But that’s really the fun of this series of documents, isn’t it? Trying to figure out the context in which our author would read a passage from postmodern author John Barth and choose to isolate three admittedly memorable turns of phrase—“heartfelt ineptitude, heartless skill, passionate virtuosity“—eliminating completely the context of the phrases. Or the orphaned wordstwyla tharp” and “retrograde” sitting next to each other with no explanation. Every page offers something new to Google 42 years after the words were penned, every entry a possible view into the interior life of this writer in 1977. It’s clear that these journals were meant to be a sketchbook, but with words instead of pictures, somewhere to put subconscious and unconscious verbal influences: “Jamming with words is like jamming music,” says the September 1977 journal, “it can lead to discovery.”

ROBERTS: Every page is a mystery, yes, and a powerful reminder that we used to do a lot more work as both private and social beings. Take this page from journal #4 (June 1977): on the left, clearly one of the shopping lists Mike is talking about (clean and healthy bloke, by the looks of things). But what’s this on the right? Kampgrounds of America? To my surprise, it’s a real thing, essentially a series of private campsites across North America rented out to the wilderness types (there were a lot more campers back then because there was a lot more wilderness). And what does “The Horse’s Mouth” refer to? Well, turn the page and you’ll find out that it’s the 1958 Alec Guinness film, which is playing at the Nuart on “Mon Aug 1 1977”. That puts him in my neck of the woods. Is he a UCLA film student? We’ve got phone numbers, store numbers, prices (“$428.00 for bike”!), books to read, movies to see, “rules to live by,” reminders, directions, more grocery lists (he has a cat, and he’s obviously stocking up for his upcoming camping trip), philosophical observations of varying degrees of perspicacity, quotes both real and imagined, a curious notation about a “Manson letter,” addresses (including Bantam Books and Avon Books), library call numbers, reservation numbers, doodles, and, because this is the ’70s, tasteless jokes like this one:

Why does Hellen Keller masturbate with only one hand?

Because she uses the other one to moan and groan with.

These notebooks—or simply pieces of scrap paper—were the only tools we had to record and manage our (then much more private) lives. Seeing one in the wild was shocking. I instantly remembered all the things I used to write down, even how some of those letters and words and numbers looked on the page, and all the paper that I’ve thrown away over the years because the permanence of that paper scared me: it reflected a person I no longer was, a person I didn’t want to know anymore, and a person I didn’t want anyone else to accidentally discover in the future. Jesus, how things have changed.

Oh, and take note, nerds. This is summer 1977, and there’s not one fucking word about Star Wars.

MCKENNA: He does go and see Nashville, though, and makes a note to himself to have John “see about” 1970 vampire flick Count Yorga. He also provides one of the oddest shopping lists I’ve ever seen: tea, brasso, fruit, cheese, crackers. What the fuck is some slacker film student doing with brasso, for god’s sake? Did young people in the mid-’70s care that much more about the sheen on their baubles, or it something to do with the pot Heron Stone is clearly constantly smoking?

He inhabits a world full of beguiling, absurdist, inexplicable details—a monster hotline, turtles on roller skatesa pumpkin festival featuring a belly dancertalk of training something called Balzac to turn when tapped on the shoulder—that give these notebooks something of Georges Perec-ian flavor, as a picture of Stone’s life and surroundings gradually builds up in your brain from the accretion of scattershot detail.

The juxtapositions are a thing of beauty: “Get new dry mop” followed immediately by “we must kill our expectations if we are to see the truth”: it’s curious to see the hiccuping lurches with which the human brain functions laid down in relatively unedited form like this. With its repeated mentions of Stone’s hatred of trimmed moustaches, his reminders to himself to check out some books on sex and massage, his pondering the plural of “bigfoot'” and his brief “high” sci-fi phase (when he mentions Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Baron and Stanislaw Lem’s The Cyberiad), Heron often comes across as a somewhat self-serious young fellow—the perfect protagonist for a Bildungsroman about a callow youth’s journey to adulthood. And as with some Nabokovian meta-novel, it’s difficult to resist trying to fit the pieces together and impose a narrative on the whole thing. There are recurring supporting characters: Pete, to whom Heron wants to talk about hemeroids (sic) and swimming; Claudia, whose boyfriend died; and most notable of all the enigmatic  “Romanov,” who Heron vows at various points to ask about flying saucersask about leap years, ask about Bukowski, and talk to about the end of civilization

In the middle of one of the notebooks, a shocking phrase, seemingly unconnected to anything around it, suddenly appears: “Open season on n******. What the fuck is that? Was that something people (as in white people) said back then as a disgusted comment on the treatment of POC? Something he’d overheard and was jotting down? Is it Heron Stone’s actual opinion? It’s impossible to know. Given Stone’s amiable stoner mien throughout the rest of the notebooks, I’m instinctively tempted to give him the benefit of the doubt—but then, I would be, wouldn’t I? We’re pretty similar, in some ways. Is my reaction just an indictment of my own insulation from and lack of understanding of this stuff? If the last few years have shown anything, it’s that what privileged bellends like me might opt to see as the disappearance of racism was actually just the racist nutcases biding their time, as people who aren’t privileged bellends like me repeatedly pointed out. So there’s that there to remind us once again of the tensions and ambiguities of the day, and how they’re still very much the tensions of today.

GRASSOLike you, Richard, I immediately sought out as much Seventies Weirdness as I possibly could, and I wasn’t disappointed. Whether it’s the overall vibe of California hippie surrounding the journals (organic grocery shopping as noted and lots of references to topographic maps for possible hikes) or the reference to REI, it’s clear that our writer was gliding on the drafts of the spiritual and paranormal of his place and time. There are numerous mentions of metaphysics, both in the context of more-or-less mainstream religion as well as the rapidly-diversifying world of cults (the Jesus movement gets a reference or two), and of psychology: the then-new theory of Julian Jaynes from The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976) sees quite a few substantial mentions in the March journal. Jaynes’s series of theories posits that the connection between our left brain (logic, reason) and right brain (imagination, creativity) has become weaker in the past few thousand years, thus leading to the modern human mind’s inability to engage with numinous experiences such as contact with gods and supernatural entities. The possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence (“ETIs“) pops up a few times as well, as does the work of Immanuel Velikovsky. In Stone’s own words, these journals are about “the unity between psychology, religion, and philosophy.”

There’s an overall sense of a man trying to figure out who he is, what he’s doing, both in the micro and macro senses. Professionally and academically, he’s suffused in the world of film and media, for which he has an obvious love. As you guys note, he saw so many movies! But there are also observations about the film business (“I should get a job at some film production company“) and at the same time technical specifications and plans for projects that sound like avant-garde video and filmic art. Not to mention the presence of television and advertising hovering throughout (a reminder to “Subscribe to TV Guide” definitely left me chuckling); there are a couple of mentions of Saturday Night Live, at this point still very hip among the youth, and hey, he liked The Gong Show enough to give it a whole page in the journal. But the pure amount of literary and artistic references here—not just from the history of cinema, but thoughts on classic and contemporary literature—and beyond the humanities, idle flickering thoughts on physics and math and both popular and fringe science; all this shows someone very curious with the world around him.

And yeah, sometimes that curiosity veers off into zones of exploration or observation that are weird or even downright offensive: idle ruminations on, say, cannibalism or the incest taboo or race or indeed all those multiple references to the Manson Family, including the downright creepy “backmasked” all-caps “ETAT NORAHS” in the March journal. But there are also deep thoughts about the environment (“we must begin to identify with the biosphere“), the end of civilization, the coming of anarchy, and how to optimally organize a society (as with the UMMO letters, Heron figures any alien society able to visit us will have figured out how to live in harmony with their environment). All of these wild flights of imagination, of a subconscious finding the most comfortable years of the 20th century—the peak (or maybe immediate post-peak) of American prosperity—lacking on some very basic level, are fascinating. Again, anyone who was the least bit intellectually curious in the 1970s would have encountered things like the Club of Rome’s report The Limits to Growth and begun to think about how sustainable modern industrial society was. At the same time, all these wanderings, both high and lowbrow, these profound realizations and tasteless jokes? Statements like “I’m getting more and more divorced from ‘normal’ people’s concerns“? They’re all very definitely High thoughts. Trust me.

I have to say, the excerpt I laughed at the longest was his innocent observation while doing laundry, from the March journal: “Stoned at the landramat (sic) again reading Scientific American. The only reason I’m writing this crap in hear (sic), is to impress a good-looking woman in here. It won’t work. She’ll think I’m Arthur Brenner (sic) or Travis Bickle.” Sort of a “metaphor”—to use a word that quite frequently appears in the journals—for this entire enterprise, huh? I think ultimately it’s easy for us to judge someone who decided to put every stray thought down into a paper journal when it’s been uploaded onto the internet 40-plus years later for literally the entire world to see, especially in a day and age where people’s public image, especially on social media, is so carefully curated. One has to imagine that the coming of computers and the intrusion of mass media into every aspect of our lives has literally changed the way we record how we think, has put filters on it for public consumption.

ROBERTS: I love this, from late 1977: “Look into John Milton, 1608-1674“. He knows John Jaynes and Stanislaw Lem but not Milton? Then again, Milton would have been très un-chic at this point. A few pages later he reminds himself to “lookup the laws of thermodynamics“. A page before, yet another note about the mysterious personage that Richard mentioned: “Romanov boobytrap”—and it’s circled! I’m seeing more Southern California towns here: Costa Mesa, Fontana, Torrance. “Entropy prevails,” he writes later, apparently having looked up the laws of thermodynamics (which I just looked up on Wikipedia in the space of three seconds to make sure I remembered the laws of thermodynamics). “MIDGET PORN FREAK ORGY“. “Who is John’s rich friend“. “I really must begin learning about boats“. “Jesus whackin’ off behind the temple“.

I think about what we’re doing here—having an extensive back and forth about these (to me) compelling historical artifacts—and boggle at what the same task would have entailed in 1977, especially given the distance that separates us.

MCKENNA: Yes, a back and forth that’s taking place across two continents and thousands of miles! I mean, I don’t want to sound like Grandad Pat, but it is fucking mind-boggling that I have less hassle intercontinentally writing, copying, editing, and manipulating images and words with you two than I did getting one—ONE—photocopy made the first time I tried to make a fanzine. For all the shit it’s produced and enabled, it’s always helpful to be reminded that one of the aspects of the digital nightmare we inhabit isn’t actually awful. Heron Stone’s notebooks invite reflection on this, given the way they evoke the need to interact physically with other people, places, and things to obtain information and engage with the world.

Anyway, yes—this uncurated, pre-digital mass of mental kipple in all its confusing fractal glory is deeply evocative, as well as surprisingly thought-provoking. Even if this accidental paean to physical reality is, ironically, now digitized.

Godspeed, Heron Stone.

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